The musicians' opinion :
"People say, what is the Canterbury scene? I think you have to come to Canterbury and see it and hear it ! I think Kent has got a particular sound. We've sung it in our schools here, we were all at school in this sort of area. I was part of the Church of England choir : up to the age of sixteen I was singing tonalities that are very English. Over the last three or four hundred years, and even earlier than that, some of the tonalities go back. So they are here, and they are a mixture of European things too. The history is very much that. A very historical centre of activity is Canterbury for the last hundred years. So it's quite an important stepping stone of whatever this thousand years have covered. I think it's not to be mocked because it's a centre of communication here and it's a meeting point - many nations come here to visit the cathedral, so you get a very unique situation happening".
"A lot goes on here, it's quite cosmopolitan, Canterbury, to a degree... But that's because of the tourists, not from the people who actually live here : they are very conservative, not cosmopolitan at all, not particularly worldly, I don't think. The music happens outside, gets written here and taken out. This is the Canterbury scene for me. It doesn't really exist here, but it forms here. Musicians, friends join together and play music together, and then they head off around Europe and play their music and get noted for this type of sound".
"I think it's a rather artificial label, a journalistic thing... I don't mind it, but people like Robert [Wyatt], he in fact hates that idea, because he was born somewhere else and just happened to go to school here. In the time when the Wilde Flowers started we hardly ever worked in Canterbury. It wasn't until Robert and Daevid went to London to start Soft Machine that anything happened at all. They weren't really a Canterbury band... So, it doesn't worry me... if it helps people understand or listen to more music then it is fine".
"Canterbury has never been a really good place to play. I played one gig last Friday and it was the first I played here for about two years. It's not virtually a musical place. There are lots of people who've come from it. There are few pubs here, but it's not really a musical hotbed at all... I was born in Canterbury and I lived here until I was about nineteen and then I lived in other places in France and London, other places in Kent... And I gradually came back this way - it wasn't really a plan, it just happened this way. So that Canterbury thing, it's a nice idea because it's a nice little town, it's got a cathedral and in the Summer it looks good. But not much is happening here, really".
"I couldn't tell you much about that... I don't remember any particular movement happening there. I was at school there, I got married there and I lived there for a while. The school I went to had nothing special, there wasn't any particular interest for art, and I grew bored because I wasn't really good at school... If there ever was a Canterbury scene, it was when the Wilde Flowers became Caravan : they were Canterbury people...".
"I didn't even know it meant me until interviewers started asking me about it. As I say, because I'd bussed in from outside to go to school there I didn't really consider myself a Canterbury person. I think it really means people like Hugh Hopper and Richard Sinclair, who are genuinely based in that area. I met them there and I'm eternally grateful that I met someone like Hugh who provided something I don't think anyone else could have provided. My mind doesn't dwell on it as a place though, if I recall a former fantasy world upon which I draw, it's Harlem in the Forties and not Canterbury in the Fifties...".
"The Canterbury School can be defined musically : certain chord changes, in particular the use of minor second chords, certain harmonic combinations, and a great clarity in the aesthetics, and a way of improvising that is very different to what is done in jazz. I really loved Soft Machine around the time of Third for that. The way they were playing the arrangements was of an absolute clarity".
Bill MacCormick [about latter-day Soft Machine]
"Well, call me a mouldering old hippy if you like but I have some sympathy with the view expressed [that post-Wyatt Soft Machine was 'crap']. Well, sort of. It's not so much that everything else is 'crap' but a lot of it (especially post Robert leaving the Softs) doesn't have anything much to do with the original 'Canterbury' feel (ethos?). Certainly, the band called Soft Machine that we (Matching Mole) toured with in 1972 in Holland and Belgium had precious little to do with the 1966-71 version in either feel or approach in my humble opinion, in spite of the presence of Ratledge and Hopper (and I may be wrong but I always felt Hugh wasn't over the moon about it either). After that, when these two had left, the Soft Machine was just a brand label being passed around. To be honest, Robert always had a great grievance that the Softs retained the name when he left... when Mike and Hugh left the name should have died with them. Instead it was just commercially exploited for what it was worth. It had nothing to do with Canterbury... as did none of the musicians. I didn't like their music either (you guessed didn't you?)...".
The fans' opinions :
These quotes are taken from various issues of the weekly Canterbury e-mail newsletter, "What's Rattlin'?", where the question of trying to define what typifies Canterbury music has been raised many times.
"After having carefully read all of the messages posted with the first three issues, I really have a doubt. If it is clear (more or less) what I would call Canterbury music, it is not clear at all what I would not call Canterbury music. What do the early Softs have in common with the group of Seven? Why do some people who write to this digest include Lindsay Cooper and exclude Fred Frith ? Or Keith Tippett?
If the criterion is the fact of having played in one of the "historical bands" - as one could derive from the fact that the mere presence of Mike Ratledge or Hugh Hopper makes a group to be Canterbury - then Fred is one of the co-founders of Henry Cow, and Lindsay came in only much later, and for a much shorter period of time. And Keith Tippett played more regularly with Elton Dean, Mark Charig and Nick Evans than Mike Ratledge did.
If the criterion is purely musical, then I really don't see the relation between early Gong and Pierre Moerlen's ones, between early Caravan and the latest formation, between the original Hatfield and their 1990 reunion. And one could go on like this with more or less all the groups/musicians who have been playing with one another, under different brands and combinations for the past 30 years or so. Even between themselves, I am not totally sure that the musicians would acknowledge more than some kind of loose affinity. (In a letter he wrote to me some years ago, Fred Frith said about National Health : "Not my kind of music, I'm afraid").
The point I'm really making is that Canterbury is more a 'spirit', a way to interpret music and the role of musicians, the inclination to cross musical genres without much respect for labels, definitions or traditions.
What I would identify as the 'Canterbury sound' does not extend - in my opinion - beyond the first three Soft Machine albums, the first four Caravan, the first two Kevin Ayers, Egg, Hatfield, Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom, the first Gilgamesh and possibly National Health.
I really don't have a definitive answer to my initial question. I would suggest that some openness would make any discography (or digest) more lively and interesting, and - I would hope - encouraging to explore unknown territories, which, after all, is the lesson I have been taught by most of the musicians we love".
"...I think Henry Cow as an entity deserves Canterbury credentials. This is based on my own working definition of Canterbury as a way of expressing a certain kind of humour in melodic and rhythmic oddities. That's also why I reject Soft Machine's Seven : it's not funny enough. I find HC pieces like "Teenbeat" and "Bittern Storm Over Ulm" hilarious, and while the humor is more the sort of self-referentiality/cultural critique usually associated with Zappa, I think there's also a debt to Soft Machine. First of all, if you listen to the Henry Cow Top Gear tapes, there's a vamp tune that's extremely derivative of "Esther's Nose Job", the whole 7/8 groove (Frith attributed it to former bassist Andy Powell). By the time Cow was recording, the explicit Soft references were gone, but this stuff leaves its mark. And I read somewhere (Melody Maker?) that Wyatt's original scheme for Rock Bottom was to record some of the music twice, once with Hatfield and the North as the backing band and then again with Cow, and edit the final record with splices between the two. Who better to judge what's Canterbury? If Wyatt thinks they can play his stuff, that's good enough for me!
Is Keith Tippett Canterbury? I don't know any connection he has to rock (or any amplified music) that doesn't go through Robert Fripp - who, despite that he produced the second Matching Mole, is no more Canterbury than I am...
Certainly [mixing different genres] isn't the only criterion; there are lots of musicians who try to do so all the time - like everyone on Cuneiform Records, among whom only Hugh Hopper and Phil Miller are dyed-in-the-wool Canterbury. I'm not even sure this is a necessary condition. I feel like, say, Alan Gowen was not fusing genres, he was playing something that was clearly jazz in conception, even if it was played on amplified equipment.
Certainly not everyone agrees with me in this matter (or anything else). There's a new book out, The Rough Guide to Jazz, written in England and quite Anglocentric (Ian Carr is one of the three principal reviewers), and there are entries for everyone on the Gilgamesh debut - except Gowen! They don't think he's jazz! They cover John Marshall, but not Wyatt; Roy Babbington, but not Hopper; most of the sidemen in In Cahoots, but not Phil Miller... it was a real disappointment to me!
What I think distinguishes Canterbury from other kinds of music, and what I like best about it, is its particular quality of humor. There are other kinds of "funny" music out there : Zappa, Devo, Randy Newman, Tom Lehrer, the Jazz Passengers, the Swinging Erudites, etc. etc. But the Canterbury school seems to me uniquely capable of making purely musical jokes without parody, without insult to other musicians or listeners, without vitiating musical or intellectual ideals. Some of this attitude resides in lyrics, like how "Why Am I So Short?" offers Wyatt's unflattering, unsentimental self-appraisal of his old drummer/biped character in a way that makes you laugh with him rather than at him. But the true Canterbury musician can do it equally well without uttering a word".
Martin Wakeling [editor of 'Why Are We Sleeping?', the Kevin Ayers fanzine]
"Oh dear, surely we've all picked over the bones of this ancient question for long enough to know that the 'spirit' philosophy is what we all understand, what we all agree on and what essentially unites the nicest set of music listeners anywhere. The pointless rummaging about what albums qualify and don't qualify as Canterbury is what divides us. We have a huge spectrum of music to explore and enjoy and the Canterbury grouping just gives us a few convenient boundaries and baselines (basslines?) on which to hang our individual hats. I respect everyone's musical tastes in this column and I'm eager to explore some of the names that have kept cropping up that I've not got round to hearing yet. I sincerely hope that other subscribers will perhaps want to do the same. In my humble opinion there are two unifying threads throughout our music : firstly the tendency towards instrumental improvisation, but secondly, the possession of a uniquely English lyrical and vocal content - it's Ayers, Wyatt, Sinclair and Allen that define it for me, the way they sing and the way they write. Is it any coincidence that many of us move onto Syd Barrett or Peter Hammill for the same reason? But it is the 'spirit' at the root of it - it convinced me back at the Gong 25th in 1994 when the endless stream of Canterbury musos climbed up and played like they'd never left each other!".
Steven Feigenbaum [Cuneiform Records label manager]
"I'd like to put my brief two cents in on this subject. If we're going to be "strict" about all of this, than Canterbury means it came from Canterbury. That then restricts us to a discussion of the members of Soft Machine, Caravan and.....well, I guess that's about it. But in terms of *style*, there's another story!
In terms of locale, Egg were not a Canterbury band, but for me mentally and musically, they certainly seem to fit in. And how about the great bands who play a Soft Machine-styled music who aren't even English! Supersister? The Muffins? Dedalus? Well, I think you see my point of view, even if you don't share it.
I even think this list/site should include bands in the "RIO" style, because if we're going to include, say, Egg in the discussions, to me Egg are an obvious prototype for the R.I.O. movement (without the folk forms many of the RIO-ers liked and used).
I'd rather this discussion group be inclusive rather than exclusive - I love Hugh Hopper's 1984 album, but other than the fact that it was made by a genuine Canterbury-er, there's nothing "Canterbury" about most of it musically. The Muffins have no "real" connections to the Canterbury scene, but Manna/Mirage is obviously musically an Americanization of that sound".
"I) It seems to me that the very essence of "Canterbury" is the tension between complicated harmonies, extended improvisations, and the sincere desire to write catchy pop songs. In the very best Canterbury music - i.e., all of Hatfield & the North, National Health, and Matching Mole, early (i.e., with Robert Wyatt) Soft Machine, early Caravan (pre-Cunning Stunts), and early Gong (pre-Shamal) -, the musically silly and the musically serious are juxtaposed in an amusing and endearing way. I've often felt that Soft Machine lost all their 'charm' when Robert Wyatt stopped singing (and eventually left). Much the same can be said of the various post-Allen and post-Hillage editions of Gong in which Pierre Moerlen was the prime mover. As great as the post-Wyatt Soft Machine music was (Seventh was my first "C" purchase!!), a lot of the humor and silliness was gone. Caravan went the other way & became too poppy & accessible... they smoothed over their musical quirks, which were pretty much totally gone by Cunning Stunts (...the title notwithstanding!).
II) Another well-known aspect of the "Canterbury" scene is the circular nature of personnel changes in the various groups. Without going into gory detail, it always seems that the same players were turning up in each others' bands. To me, this phenomenon explains why there is a "Canterbury Sound" at all. After all, musicians are the ones making the sounds! Similar scenes have emerged in France (Zao, Magma, Weidorje, et al.) and Belgium (Univers Zero, Art Zoyd, etc.) to much the same effect. In contrast, Daevid Allen's "New York Gong" albums bear absolutely NO resemblance whatsoever to Canterbury music. To me, this is a great example of the importance of this rotating cast of musicians to the Canterbury sound. Of course, there are always exceptions & so there are some VERY Canterbury-sounding (...but also very original-sounding) bands from Japan & Italy (e.g., Picchio dal Pozzo).
III) The vocals (if any) are delivered in very "British" manner, with absolutely no attempt to ape American blues and pop singers. For my money, this aspect of the Canterbury sound, plus the tendency towards complex structures and lengthy improvisations was enough to scare off most record companies!
IV) The lyrics (if any) betray a strong sense of the absurd (pataphysical humour?). If they are 'about' anything, they're often hilarious and concerned with private jokes and/or various aspects of British domestic life. Hatfield's lyrics about "life as a pop star" from the first album are utterly hilarious!!"
"I'm going to be a bit of an iconoclast and defend some music that gets unfairly lambasted just about everywhere. In particular, I am going to defend jazz-era Gong and Soft Machine. It's not just that I like them, it's that there are reasons to like them and reasons why saying simply that they are "crap" is wrong.
Sticking to one very narrow style of music, such as british psychedelia, is an annoying kind of elitism, principally because it is generally based on nostalgia, one of the worst criteria of judgment. I like music that shows high quality musicianship, good knowledge of advanced musical principles and how to use them, and is in some way distinctive.
I believe that jazz-era Gong and Soft Machine meet these criteria, that they were not simply generic fusion bands, and that they deserve their places in the hearts of Canterbury music fans and people like me who just like good music no matter where it comes from. The beautiful interlocking tuned percussion riffs of the brothers Moerlen and the fabulous soloists they got to front those riffs (Holdsworth, Oldfield, Lockwood, Way, Malherbe) certainly place these Gong albums among the best fusion recordings. Karl Jenkins' unique composition style of jazz mixed with minimalism is also too distinctive to write off as simply garbage.
And it strikes me that those who do not appreciate the musical qualities of these recordings have not listened with any great care to what is musically there. Instead all they hear is that it is not what Daevid Allen or Robert Wyatt would have done, and so tune out.
I am glad that later incarnations of Gong and Soft Machine did not try to imitate what had already been done. Allen and Wyatt are their own kinds of musicians. The musical world is big enough to hold them and Moerlen and Jenkins (and while we're at it Rick Wakeman and Yes as well)".
"I'd like to give a few ideas about THE crucial, even though academic or byzantine, question: what is (and what is not) 'Canterburish'? Some members of the list have spoken of 'spirit'. Of course. But I think there is more, and more simple. There is another big question, much more difficult (try to answer, and you'll see): what is progressive rock? The only criteria we can use are musical, stylistic, formal. But the field, the styles are so diverse... We are more lucky with the Canterbury Scene, because the criteria are more specific: they are historical, biographical, personal.
Let's explain : members of the Canterbury scene generally have personal links of friendship and collaboration with each others. First we have the basic bunch, the ones from the Wilde Flowers, the early Soft Machine and Caravan, and their subsequent groups or careers (Gong, Matching Mole, Kevin Ayers...). This is the historical criterion. Secondly, other musicians have been involved in these groups. A good exemple: Elton Dean. One impressive case: Delivery was (from what I read) a blues band, but ALL of its members have been in one or another Canterburian group! So everyone of them is a citizen of the nation. On a third level, a group has played a prominent part, Hatfield and the North, with the introduction of Dave Stewart. And we can see what role chance can play in history, when we read (in his autobiography) how he got involved in the band. It is this fact (and the involvement of Hillage in Gong) that retroactively aggregates groups like Uriel, Egg and Khan to the Scene.
And collaborations or involvements are also the reasons we have to count the Henry Cow family amongst the Canterburic groups. For instance, there is a BIG black hole in the Canterbury Scene : the Ottowa Music Company. No records (no recordings?), just a little information... This was a reunion of Egg and Henry Cow musicians, and it seems to me to be a major fact in the connexion between Henry Cow and the Canterbury scene.
I still don't know if Keith Tippett is 'canterburiable'. Some Canterbury people have worked with him. He provided musicians like Dean, Charig or Evans to the scene. But his music is definitely jazz (anyway, like most of the others nowadays?). For me the question is of less importance: thanks to my exploration of the Canterbury Scene, I have listened to his music, and I like it (the first two albums, plus Septober Energy and Frames). There are other, looser connexions : Bruford, Holdsworth, Fripp / Eno / Quiet Sun, Nucleus (another provider of musicians), the English free jazz (Brotherhood of Breath etc.), Bley/Mantler, etc.
So, beyond the spiritual or stylistic criteria, questions of personal links and biography are, for me, the main characteristic of the movement. For that reason (and musical stuff too, of course), this one is a fantastic part of the progressive rock, a unique case. And we have, within this microcosm, all the subgenres of progressive rock : symphonic (the Uriel branch), pop-rock (and some jazzish: Caravan), rock-jazz (Soft Machine), "space rock", rather hippy (Gong), pure songs (Ayers), underground and free rock (H. Cow) - and of course, both the diamonds you can't compare to nothing: Hatfield and National Health (the quintessence of progressive rock?).
I'm waiting (am I the only one?) for somebody to write a large, full and complete history of it: who did what? who knew who? who brought who? who liked who?, and so on. (You know, the pleasure to read about it is almost as great as to listen to the music). Such a book could be a consequence (a product) of what we are doing here - maybe a collaboration between some of you? Canterbury Music is a net (just look at the family trees!). What we all love is to travel in it. My pleasure is to try to know every branch".
"...That brings me to the ugly topic of definitions. To sum up : screw 'em! Music is an art, not a science, so we have to enjoy the definitions as embellishment to the experience of the music. And in the case of the Canterburians, that includes the various family trees. It definitly makes the music more interesting to know who plays on what and where they have come from. I really enjoy it. But for me the idea of pinning down who or what belongs in this group is an exercise in.... well it's an exercise. Don't get me wrong- I immensly enjoy reading them. It flexes my muscles of appreciation for the music. But it shouldn't go further than that. In my opinion, everyone should just write about what they enjoy. I've learned quite a bit just from reading just that- thus far.
Let me just say that the other day I read a couple relevant contributions along these lines. The first was about Archie Legget, I believe. Someone mentioned he had played with both Charles Aznavour and Tony Sheridan. I started thinking they, in turn have performed with Edith Piaf and The Beatles, respectively. Meanwhile, Wyatt has worked with John Cage (as have I, I'm proud to namedrop). So there you have the connections to the entirety of pop music in the 20th century. By definition, the Canterbury Scene includes damn near everything...
I personally have always been fascinated by the Wilde Flowers. I see them as the common root that spawned all that followed. I guess for me the "scene" is whomever those original guys eventually played with. That is more than enough to keep things interesting. But I must say I really enjoy hearing about new bands who's only connections to the scene are as influences. Keep them coming!
To the Wilde Flowers' credit is the fact that when I finally heard the CD compiled from their 1960's demo recordings, I was quite impressed! I think it holds up! Who knew recordings existed and that they would actually be so entertaining!? I find some of those tunes really important in understanding the developments that came later. A song like "No Game When You Lose" is valuable as an historical document and it has a groove you can dance to!
The second point regards a comment that someone mentioned: that the later (4-7 and beyond) Softs' should not be trashed, that in fact they are preferable because of their musicianship and technical abilities. I appreciate that and love every one of those records. But I must say that "good" music involves much more than technique. As many have eloquently stated, many of the Canterburians have technique in addition to the rest. But I just want to say that "the rest" involves humor, yes and then something else. Wyatt asked us to forgive his "dodgy" playing on End Of An Ear because of his "painful sincerity." I think the sincerity is part of it. And so are other things I can't articulate. But some of the later Softs' music seemed to be a bit lacking in this quality, whatever it is. As someone else pointed out, I always got something out of every Softs record so I'm not complaining. But I just want to speak out against the idea that prowess on an instrument is all there is. Wyatt's voice is a perfect example. It is a flawed "instrument" but he sure delivers a lot of feeling (and reeling and squealing) with it.
I am most enamoured with Wyatt's vocal experiments. In fact I think all the experiments on all this music is what changed my life. As others have said, they taught me that more was possible than what meets the eye through the mass media. But I also like Pop. I think what I have always enjoyed is that this music is Pop- just slightly twisted and a bit more intelligent.
In addition to Wyatt and the Softs I also like Hatfield, Henry Cow and anything by Daevid Allen. Ayers too. And Hopper. Like I said, I see it all as fanning out from the Wilde Flowers. Henry Cow is too good and fun NOT to be included. Their links came later. Pip Pyle recently explained to me that he really has nothing to do with Canterbury and seems to resent the phrase. So in a way it is a misnomer. But again, when it comes to definitions, screw 'em. It's alot easier to say "Canterburians" than it is to say 'music that evolved from the Wilde Flowers' or some other cumbersome phrase".